Why Does My Child Have Back Pain?

Summer vacation is over and your kids are heading back to school this week!  A common parental concern I’ve noticed relates to children and back pain.  It is surprising to many folks that kids would even develop back pain.  After all, they’re just kids right? Shouldn’t they be less susceptible to back problems than adults?

The reality is our kids live pretty active lives these days and there are certainly more, or at least newer risk factors that affect kids in 2014 than what we may have experienced when we were kids.

Digital Age Dilemma – the explosion in usage of iPads, smartphones and other personal media devices has resulted in a generation of youth that is sitting more and being less physically active.  Not only that, they are sitting in poor positions or postures for lengthy periods of time.  I know kids as young as 6-7 who are addicted to games like Minecraft and Clash of Clans and who sit slouched in chairs for 1-2 hours playing the game on their iPads.  Parents need to limit electronic device usage and get their kids engaged in a wide variety of physical activity instead.

Overweight Children – possibly correlated to the Digital Age Dilemma but also poor nutritional habits, a recent Canadian study in 2012 revealed that almost one third of kids aged 5-17 are overweight or obese and particularly in boys.  Just like adults, extra pounds increase the load on your spine, taxing your muscles and dumping pressure on the soft tissue around your vertebrae. This can exaggerate the natural curve of your lower back, throwing off your spine’s alignment and causing chronic lower-back pain.

Carrying Heavy Loads – kids these days get alot of homework…definitely more than I did back in the ’70-80s.  And the weight of the stuff they have to carry to and from school has correspondingly gotten heavier too.  Large backpacks are stuffed with duotangs, binders, textbooks, extra shoes, lunches, etc.  Whenever I drop off my own daughter at school, I am continually surprised to see so many kindergarten kids carrying backpacks that were too large for their little bodies!  Often, backpacks may equal 20% to 40% of the child’s own body weight (equivalent to a 150-pound adult carrying a 30 to 60-pound back pack around 5 days a week). Older kids frequently carry their bags on just one shoulder which creates overuse and muscle imbalances too.  Is it any surprise really that kids are developing back pain?  For tips on how to adjust your child’s backup, follow this Backpack Checkup.

Higher Risk Extracurricular Activities – it’s great that many kids are involved with after school physical activities and sports.  Parents should keep in mind though that all activities carry an inherent risk for injury not only to the back but other areas of the body also.  Fast and impact sports like hockey, soccer, taekwondo/karate can result in back injuries.  Gymnastics and dance which often teach movements that hyperextend the spine can also create back problems and even stress fractures in kids who are competitive or training several times per week.  Also be cautious that we often want our kids to play sports to get fit but that kids are not fit to play.  Team coaches and trainers are often enthusiastic volunteers who may not have the education to provide a well rounded fitness program for the kids that gets the kids ready to play. Warmup and cooldowns may not exist or be adequate and basic strength training to enhance the kids’ preparedness for the sport may not be available.

Things are certainly different with each generation of children and it’s vital for parents and health care providers to understand the changing health needs of our kids. Let’s keep the lines of communication open!

Dr. Keith

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